Sunday, September 11, 2005

A useful legend ...

Given all the blame being heaped upon President Bush for having been somehow responsible for the debacle in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina (perhaps he should be corrspondingly praised for the comparatively efficient response in Mississippi -- after all, he had about much to do with the one as with the other), it seems useful to recall the legend of wise King Canute, who used the sea's inexorable tides to demonstrate the limits of executive power.


  1. More than thirty years ago, I saw the difference that timely arrival of state and federal resources could have upon a disaster-in-the-making.

    In 1972, before the waters of the Susquehanna had begun to recede ... before they had even finished rising ... the state and federal governments were dispatching units to the flooded communities of the Wyoming Valley ... just a couple hours north of you.

    Trucks and helicopters carried supplies and emergency personnel, earth movers set-up secondary lines of flood control, troops closed off roads in and out of towns in the area. They even flew in a firefighting boat to battle a blaze that had broken out in downtown - and still flooded - Wilkes-Barre.

    Much of this was done at the behest of northeastern Pennsylvania's congressman. Ironically, such personal initiative would probably be blocked today by the bureaucracy that is FEMA - an agency that owes its creation to that time in 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes was one of America's costliest - both interms of life and property damage - natural disaster.

    This time? It was five days before residents of the flooded Saint Bernard's Parish in New Orleans received help ... and that was a contingent of Royal Canadian Mounties, who came south on their own to help.

    Meanwhile, President Bush's mouthpiece has declined Cuba's offer to send 1,500 doctors, each with training and experience in disaster services, and each toting a 55-pound backpack of medical supplies. Instead, the mouthpiece took the opportunity to scold Castro, and demand that the Cuban set his own people free ... pathetic.

    And now we find out that the Bush Administration didn't even bother to check Brown's resume when they appointed him FEMA chief.

    So, yes, I do cast some blame Mr. Bush's way! He worked hard, really hard, to earn that blame!

  2. My own inclination is not to look to the Grand Poohbah in the District of Columbia -- whoever he may be at whatever time -- for solace and sustenance whenever anything bad happens. The primary responsibility for an individual's welfare is the individual's own. After that, in order, come the immmediate locality, the state, and if necessary the Feds. Also, real leadership involves, first, getting down to the work at hand, not pausing to wonder who is to blame for what. Also, you may want to consider this piece by Jack Kelly:
    It is just one of many pieces beginning to appear correcting errors in earlier reports.

  3. Frank, I appreciate your input, but I have to point out - respectfully - that Jack Kelly's opinion piece praises the feds for showing up 72-96 hours after the disaster in Louisiana. My post stated facts, that federal and state units, showing up as the disaster was developing in Pennsylvania, made a dramatic difference in the survival of and recovery from that disaster.

    And I'll ask a question of my own. What mysterious insight did the American Red Cross have that state and federal officials did not have? I ask this because we did a story on a West Texas Red Cross emergency service vehicle and team departing for Louisiana even before Katrina made landfall. It's one reason that I can't share Mr. Kelly's admiration for the feds' three or four-day response time.

    Frank, I've posted another long (and long-winded!) comment. I appreciate your patience, and the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

  4. Your posts, Jeff, are neither long nor long-winded.
    Re the Red Cross: I was under the impression both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army -- both of which figure by name in the FEMA legislation -- were blocked from helping by state and local authorities. The FEMA legislation mandates that the agency assist local authorities, not supersede them. From what I understand federal authorities asked Gov. Blanco to let them take charge and she refused their request.
    I still think the initial concern should have been exclusively with responding to the disaster and that the blame game was an unnecessary distraction. When an emergency happens, people should get their priorities in order. And I still think that personal, individual responsibility is what counts most.

  5. I will jump in briefly only to corroborate what Jeff has said one hundred percent. I was a reporter in the Harrisburg area during Hurricane Agnes and can say that the federal response to that disaster was as lightning compared to the pathetically slow and seemingly unconcerned reaction of the current administration to Hurricane Katrina. Having seen and reported that 1972 devastation first-hand, I don't know any other way to express it. I saw hundreds of individuals -- some of them my own colleagues in the area whose lives were shattered and homes destroyed -- "getting down to the work at hand," but also looking for and appreciative of a swift helping hand from their national leadership. Personal, individual responsibilty is what appears sufficient to those who have everything they need; it does not go very far if every material possession for which you are individually and personally responsible has been swept away. And I am not and was not a fan of Richard Nixon, under whose watch that disaster fell.

  6. Hey, I wasn't suggesting that the entire weight of responsibility rests on the individual. And I certainly wasn't suggesting that the victims of Katrina be left to fend for themselves (though that's what New Orleans' authorities in effect did).
    I was reminding of the principle of subsidiarity, according to which nothing should be done by a larger, more complex agency that can be done better by a smaller, simpler one. In the case of Katrina, certain federal agencies were in fact on the scene and at work within 24 hours, notably the Coast Guard and particularly the USS Bataan. One of that ship's officers, Lt. Cmdr, Sean Kelly, recently wrote the following (quoted on Power Line):
    "USNORTHCOM was prepositioned for response to the hurricane, but as per the National Response Plan, we support the lead federal agency in disaster relief — in this case, FEMA. The simple description of the process is the state requests federal assistance from FEMA which in turn may request assistance from the military upon approval by the president or Secretary of Defense. Having worked the hurricanes from last year as well as Dennis this year, we knew that FEMA would make requests of the military — primarily in the areas of transportation, communications, logistics, and medicine. Thus we began staging such assets and waited for the storm to hit.

    "The biggest hurdles to responding to the storm were the storm itself — couldn't begin really helping until it passed — and damage assessment — figuring out which roads were passable, where communications and power were out, etc. Military helos began damage assessment and SAR on Tuesday. Thus we had permission to operate as soon as it was possible. We even brought in night SAR helos to continue the mission on Tuesday night.

    "The President and Secretary of Defense did authorize us to act right away and are not to blame on this end. Yes, we have to wait for authorization, but it was given in a timely manner."

    Please note that Lt. Cmdr. Kelly was not writing an opinion column: He was stating facts observed first-hand.

    After the individual, the principal responsibility lay, first, with New Orleans authorities, and second with Louisiana authorities.

    Note also that state and local authorities in Mississippi, which took a direct hit from the storm, operated much more effectively than their counterparts in Louisiana. Same storm, different results. Cause of difference: response by local and state authorities.

    It seems obvious to me that the primary concern of too many people commenting on this matter has been to score points politically -- in some cases, even to raise funds, not for the storm victims, but for their own electoral ambitions.

  7. Frank, I have REALLY enjoyed this discussion ... the fact that I could talk with people from the northeast, who could contribute their own memories of 1972, was an added perq.

    I also believe that while you and I differ on some points ... there are also a number of others upon which we agree ...

    An example of the latter ... in my first comment, I stated that Congressman Dan Flood's personal initiative in 1972 might not be possible today ... and I think the information you shared - from Sean Kelly - showed that to be the case.

    Again, I enjoyed my discussion with you and Melville. I am a better - and better-informed - person for having engaged in that discusssion.

    Now, I think I'll leave a comment on your Runyon post! :-)

  8. I think that points up the real value of blogging -- which, at its best, is dialogue, not monologue. I have reached a point in my life where I can hardly bear to watch TV news because of the grandstanding by the pols -- which is almost bearable, since that's what they do -- but most all of by the so-called reporters.